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Empathy for the buried as Chilean miners emerge


Chilean minersIt makes me gasp instinctively for breath, the thought of 33 bodies entombed more than half a kilometre beneath a dry, menacing desert in South America. For two months I have pictured these men measuring their days in droplets of sweat, warding off the terrors that fill their perpetual, enfolding nights.

I have pushed away thoughts of a Lord of the Flies scenario, where primitive instinct overrides moral rectitude, an outcome so easily enacted in a place from which escape is impossible and to which help cannot be easily dispatched.

Surely mine was not the only pulse that faltered when , not long after their discovery, one of the miners refused to speak into a camera that had been lowered into the cavern? He was too shy, his workmates laughed uneasily; they would speak on his behalf instead. I silently hoped that his family would insist on seeing evidence of his wellbeing, as the loved-ones of hostages are wont to do.

As the miners incubated and festered in their hell-hole, so their legend grew. Now, as they prepare to return to the surface, their aura thrums with a mysterious, murky undercurrent. 'Things went on down there which will never be spoken of. They have taken a pledge of silence,' said the wife of one of the miners.

These men will have the eyes of the world on them as, one-by-one, they are drawn upwards through 700 m of dense, compressed earth. The capsule in which they ride will represent freedom, but it will also reinforce the might of the earthly straightjacket into which they have been crammed these past months.

I have journeyed in one of these capsules myself, as a young journalist working in Johannesburg, a city set on a vast basin of gold. At a vacant plot on the East Rand, where mine dumps rise like hillocks from the bland, dun-coloured landscape, the Chamber of Mines was showcasing this clever mine rescue device. They had drilled a hole into a shaft perhaps 100 or 200 m below the surface, and had set up the contraption with its scaffolding and pulleys and other cleverly-engineered rigging.

Although the South African mining industry placed tremendous emphasis on safety, injury and death were considered inherent to deep level mining. So-called 'proto teams' were drawn from the ranks of fit, healthy and knowledgeable mine employees, and were trained by Mine Rescue Services to deal with all eventualities: rock falls, winding accidents, explosions, underground fires . They were also trained to squeeze themselves into 60-cm-wide holes drilled by a rescue drill unit.

The hard-hat I was given would have looked out of place with the sundress I was wearing the day I went to interview the members of a proto team. I climbed into the capsule awkwardly, gripping my bulky, expensive recording equipment. With barely any space to exhale, claustrophobia-fueled panic rose in my chest. Raw earth passed by, just centimetres from my eyes. The light seeped away, and all that was left was the smell of earth, the squeaking of the cable above me, and the sound of my own breathing.

Then a beam of light from a miner's hard hat reached up towards me from the darkness below, and the capsule escaped from its tight channel into a dark, airy space. A voice greeted me and a hand guided me out. I fumbled with my equipment and did an interview, there in the dark, with the faceless person before me. I knew what to expect on my way back up, and was grateful for the light and fresh air that was waiting in abundance when I emerged.

A ride in a rescue capsule makes a good story. But the experience gave me pause for thought in the ensuing years, each time I felt the earth tremble or heard the sirens wail while living on various mine sites with my engineer husband. The earth's deepest crevices will yield resources, riches and jobs for people with little more than labouring skills. But it will just as easily snatch away their lives.

We will all bear witness to a miracle when the 33 miners are delivered to freedom. Their stories guarantee to enthrall us: will they forge lifelong friendships or bear eternal grudges? Will they honour their pledge to profit equally from their misadventure, or will some break away from the pack and tell different versions of one harrowing story? And will the last person to emerge tell of his fear of being left alone as he watched the capsule rise slowly to the surface, carrying with it the second-to-last occupant of the deathly cavern?

The outcome of the San Jose rock-fall will, hopefully, be nothing like a William Golding novel or a case study in severe psychiatric distress. Instead, it will be like a glorious rebirth, a second chance at life: transported in a capsule through a dark, constricting canal, the men will emerge into the loving arms of family and the bright light of the Atacama Desert, decorated now with shrines and icons and flags and the endlessly optimistic, death-defying, and accurately-named Camp Hope. 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist working for Jesuit Communications. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marhsall, Chile, Lord of the Flies, miners, trapped, underground, Camp Hope, South Africa



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Existing comments

Catherine your article is extradordinary. i cannot think of the living hell in which these men are currently trapped wthou being all too aware of my own claustrophobia (writ small through being trapped in a lift with 20 people on New Years Eve for a paltry 12 or so minutes). thank you for this reminder to pray for God's mercy, for hope, release and freedom.

anna brown | 13 October 2010  

Fascinating story, I'm glad that these men have the chance of another life. As you so aptly state, the have been entomb, and almost given up for dead. I hope that they and their families are properly compensated for their ordeal. You are right it is a miracle and a modern day marvel, that the technology exists to be able to rescue these people.

Perhaps a bigger picture point here is that the technology and knowledge exist to fix most of our problems both environmental and human, the lack of political will is perhaps the hardest problem to overcome. Thank God that these people will live to see and feel the sun again, to love and laugh with their families again.

Peter Igoe-Taylor | 13 October 2010  

As Lenny Cohen said - it's a cold and a broken Hallejuiah.

Sandie Cornish | 13 October 2010  

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